Yanukovych's Fall: The Power of Ukraine's Billionaires

By Christian Neef  in Kiev

Part 2: 'Hard to Believe'

In the last parliamentary elections, Akhmatov filled roughly 60 spots on the Party of Regions list with his people while Firtash chose 30. That is how politics in Ukraine is done: Whereas Putin took power away from the oligarchs in Russia, they are still at the controls in Ukraine.

The pair came to the conclusion well before the current crisis that Yanukovych would not be around for much longer. They began carefully looking around for alternatives. Akhmetov, for example, had always gotten along well with Tymoshenko, in contrast with Firtash, and began supporting Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who took over the leadership of her Fatherland alliance when she was incarcerated. Firtash, for his part, backed Vitali Klitschko's party UDAR.

"In reality, Firtash early on placed people in Klitschko's UDAR Party, a former head of secret service, for example," says Vadim Karasev. "The contacts were made via the head of the presidential office."

"It may sound hard to believe," Karasev says, "but Firtash was looking for an alternative for the eventuality that Tymoshenko was released and claimed the right to the presidency. It would have been advantageous were Klitschko already there, as a puppet of Firtash."

That's how Akhmetov and Firtash built up options for a possible future without Yanukovych. When the protests broke out on Independence Square in November and both oligarchs saw how obstinately Yanukovych reacted, they began to distance themselves. It was clear to both of them that if worse comes to worst, and the West imposed sanctions on Ukraine, their businesses would be the first to be affected.

Akhmetov made it known that he was in favor of negotiations between the government and the opposition. Firtash also quickly called for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, emphasizing that people on both sides of the barricades were Ukrainians.

Letting Yanukovych Fall

Last Tuesday's bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov's and Firtash's TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We're letting Yanukovych fall.

And in parliament -- where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks -- the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

Friday was a cheerful day, with bright blue skies. There was still sporadic gunfire but on Independence Square it was hard to believe that, just a few days earlier, people had been gunned down there.

Shortly after noon Yanukovych addressed the people as though he were still calling the shots. He declared that he would "initiate" new elections, constitutional reform and the formation of a new government with national support. Then, things began moving very fast. On Friday evening, parliament got back its full former powers, dismissed the hated interior minister and ultimately Yanukovych himself and smoothed the way for the release of Yulia Tymoshenko.

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